The Nature of Anthropology as a Discipline

Anthropology is an outgrowth of the sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century European discoveries of the remains of ancient civilizations and fossil ancestors as well as Europeans'encounters with contemporary cultures that differed greatly from those of Europe. The need to explain, understand, and deal with these discoveries as a means of better understanding their own cultures gave rise to anthropology as an academic and museum discipline.

It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, that a coherent intellectual structure emerged for the discipline. In the United States Franz Boas, of Columbia University, helped combine four sub-fields into what we now see in most major U.S. university departments of anthropology: cultural anthropology, archaeology, anthropological linguistics, and physical (biological) anthropology. Combined research in these four sub-fields has achieved a broad coverage of human biological and cultural evolution in its study of the world's cultures, past and present—the most distinguishing feature of anthropology. The concept of culture has become the unifying theoretical framework that allows the subdisciplines of the field to interact in research and teaching.

Cultural anthropology deals with the description and analysis of the forms and styles of human social life. One subdiscipline of anthropology, ethnography, systematically describes societies and cultures. Another subdiscipline, ethnology, is the closely related theoretical comparison of these descriptions that provides the basis for broad-based cultural generalizations.

Archaeology and its systematic excavation of the interred remains of the past reveal sequences of social and cultural adaptations and evolution under diverse natural and cultural conditions. Archaeology makes substantial contributions to the study of man in its quest to understand prehistory and in its investigation of the full cultural record of mankind.

Anthropological linguistics provides yet another essential perspective with its investigation of world languages. A major objective of this field is reconstructing historical changes that have led to the formation of contemporary languages and families of languages. In a more fundamental sense, anthropological linguistics is concerned with the nature of language and its functions in human and prehuman cultures. Anthropological linguistics is also concerned with the relationships between the evolution of language and the evolution of cultures. Finally, anthropological linguistics is essential for the cultural anthropologist seeking to understand and to write heretofore unwritten languages.

The subfield of physical (biological) anthropology concentrates on man's prehuman origins and takes into account both genetically and culturally determined aspects of human beings. Physical anthropology seeks to identify the processes of human evolution by studying the fossil remains of ancient human and prehuman species and by describing and analyzing the distribution of hereditary variations among contemporary populations increasingly by means of genetic research.

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